Commercial, Embedded Avionics

Aircraft Electronic Skin Could Improve Flight Ops

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | August 25, 2014
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[Avionics Today 08-25-2014] What if commercial aircraft could be equipped with a "smart skin" that would enable it to “feel” the environment around it, similar to the way a human being does? The technology sounds like something out of a Sci-Fi film but engineers at BAE Systems' Advanced Technology Center have been researching this concept for five years, according to Lydia Hyde, senior research scientist leading the research and development on the company's "smart skin" project. She said her "Eureka" moment came while observing how the dryer in her home uses a sensor to prevent overheating when clothes become too hot.
BAE Systems Senior Research Scientist Lydia Hyde is leading the company's "smart skin" research project. Photo: BAE Systems
"Observing how a simple sensor can be used to stop a domestic appliance overheating, got me thinking about how this could be applied to my work and how we could replace bulky, expensive sensors with cheap, miniature, multi-functional ones," said Hyde. "This, in turn, led to the idea that aircraft, or indeed cars and ships, could be covered by thousands of these motes creating a ‘smart skin’ that can sense the world around them and monitor their condition by detecting stress, heat or damage."
But Hyde's "Eureka moment," isn’t the only thing propelling this project. BAE Systems is also researching the smart skin concept based on the current trend of electronics and wireless devices constantly becoming more miniaturized. The United Kingdom-based aerospace manufacturer said this trend has lead to the development of "motes," which are complete computing packets that contain sensors, processing, communication ability and power.
The goal is to embed thousands of these motes across a surface to create a skin with next generation sensory capability. That sensing information could be captured by the smart skin and then transmitted wirelessly to a remote operator and displayed on a compatible user interface. Hyde said that the increased sensing capability for an aircraft would also help reduce the need for “routing maintenance checks” by providing more real-time in-flight information about various aircraft components.
There are certain aspects of the technology that BAE will have to address in its research, such as the possibility of faulty sensors or software flaws not allowing the transmission of information about the aircraft condition. "Effectively, the more sensing we can put on there and the more we can understand how its flying or how its doing, the better that we can make that flight," said Hyde. But adds that the research team is being realistic, and sees this technology as possibly being ready to apply to commercial aircraft within the next 15 to 20 years. "This is a technology that we need to start developing now so that it will be ready to go in the future. At the moment this is an active research topic, we've been working on it for five years. What I envision in the future is that we have a smart skin that is a paint that effectively you've got these tiny computers that you can just spray on.”

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